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All eyes on Gov. Koike's Tomin First party as Tokyo assembly election commences

Democratic Party leader Renho, left, and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike (Mainichi)

As the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election campaign officially kicked off on June 23, the question of the moment is: How many seats can Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike's Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites first association) win in the July 2 poll?

Political parties fielding candidates in the race are struggling to deal with their competitors, as the structure of interparty cooperation is different from that in national politics.

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is becoming increasingly pessimistic about the outcome of the local election due to a sharp drop in public support for the Abe Cabinet on the national level. The administration has come under fire over its handling of plans by a school corporation run by an Abe friend to establish a veterinary school, and over the ruling coalition ramming a controversial "anti-conspiracy" bill through the Diet.

Hakubun Shimomura, executive acting secretary-general of the LDP and head of the party's Tokyo chapter, urged its candidates in the assembly election to do their utmost to win the race. "I'd like you to fight to win a seat by all means," he said in a ceremony to mark the launch of the party's campaign headquarters on June 22. In an unusual move to boost its electoral chances, the LDP has even assigned a Diet member to each of its candidates for campaigning.

Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai (Mainichi)

The LDP and Tomin First are expected to compete fiercely for the highest seat tally in the assembly. However, Abe, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and other top LDP officials want to avoid a head-on clash with Koike as Tokyo hosts the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, and have refrained from openly criticizing Koike personally.

However, public criticism of the Abe administration is growing, and senior LDP members are beginning to make pessimistic comments on the possible outcome of the election. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Abe remains on the defensive, telling a June 19 news conference, "The metropolitan assembly election is nothing but a local election in which issues that local residents face will be points of contention."

The largest opposition Democratic Party (DP), which is struggling to regain public support after many of its metropolitan assembly members left the party, is approaching Tomin First.

DP leader Renho criticized the Abe administration during a speech expressing support for a DP candidate in Tokyo's Katsushika Ward, saying, "We should avoid politics that benefit people close to those in power in both national and metropolitan governments."

The DP has not clarified the number of seats it is aiming to win. Moreover, the DP has emphasized that the party will deal with Koike on her merits, while criticizing past Tokyo governors.

Many DP candidates are openly expressing support for Koike's party. The phrase "Tomin First's politics will clean up the metro government" and a photo of Koike are printed on the cover of a leaflet for a DP candidate, which Renho also distributed.

Although "the Democratic Party" was printed on the back cover of the leaflet, it makes no mention of the party's leader Renho, who has been expected to serve as the "face" of the party's election campaigns.

Jin Matsubara, head of the DP's Tokyo chapter, has stressed that Tomin First is like an ally. About 50 DP members of ward and city assemblies are supporting those running with Tomin First backing despite the latter's defections from the DP.

"These candidates can't be officially regarded as DP candidates, but DP members are playing a key role in supporting their campaigns," Matsubara said.

For Renho, the metropolitan assembly election is the first large scale election in Tokyo -- where she has been elected to the Diet -- since she became DP leader in September 2016. Depending on the outcome, Renho could come under pressure from within her party to step down as leader. She has come to a critical point in her political career.

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